Fourteen years after the visit of John Paul II, Azerbaijan is once more preparing for a pontifical visit.

The pope will not only travel to the tiny Catholic community, but also work towards peace in a long suffering region.

Situated on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Baku is a very beautiful city if you ignore the large blocks of Soviet high rises grouped together at its edges. With its mix of the Orient, the capital city offers a collection from several historical periods, beginning with the old city with its narrow alleys, classical buildings and old mosques, to the Baroque city from the time of the first oil boom in the early twentieth century, all the way to the ultramodern city of the new oil boom; here, the boldest architects on Earth have given their best.

The country is rich, very rich as a matter of fact, thanks to the oil that has made it possible to shift the focus to major projects. The “Dubai of the Caspian See” was even planning to create artificial islands, as is common practice among the rich Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula. Ninety-five per cent of its resources stem from this energy source, which means that the country has not been left unscathed by the current drop in oil prices. Large-scale projects such as the extension of the subway have been suspended while the one or other budget problem has come to light.

When the Sisters of Mother Teresa arrived in the country in 2006 to serve the poor, they were told that there were no poor in Azerbaijan! However, there are those whom the system has forgotten; these are the ones who mourn Soviet times when everyone received a subsistence wage.

A secularized society

Even though the population of Azerbaijan is 97% Muslim, through the influence of their Persian neighbour, two-thirds of these are Shiites. However, the country is one of the most secularized in the midst of an Islamic world and significant control continues to be exercised over the various religious groups to restrict the potential growth of Islamist extremism.  As a former Soviet republic, the country experienced seventy years of communism and religious suppression. Around the turn of the millennium, religious life was very weak and society strongly secularized. Even today, Islam is quite inconspicuous, with a much smaller visible presence than one would see in Paris or other major French cities.  Sunnis make up a minority in Azerbaijan with an estimated 15% to 30%. The government keeps a very close watch on any attempts at radicalisation. It has probably not only remained suspicious of religion as such, but is also aware of the dangers of its expansion in view of the current situation in the Middle East.  Even though it barely makes up more than 2% of the population, the second most important religion is the Orthodox faith. In the past, its followers counted barely half a million, but their numbers shrank to 200,000 when half of the Russians left the country after independence. The Orthodox church has an eparchy with approximately fifteen parishes and maintains good relations with the Catholic church.

A tiny minority church

A Catholic church was built in 1912 during the time of the first oil boom, but was closed again with the arrival of the Bolsheviks in 1920 and then destroyed in the early 1930s. When the Catholic church returned in 1992, only a dozen aged followers remained of what had once been 10,000 Catholics. Today, the community has 300 native-born members (often mixed marriages) and 1,000 foreign members including 300 Filipinos: when considered in relation to the entire country, an almost symbolic presence. On average, about 500 people come together each week.

Since the church was initially seen as an evangelizing sect, John Paul II’s visit did wonders for the church. In response, the president gave a piece of land to the church, which it dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. A large statue of the Virgin Mary stands directly in front of the church and draws many people, including many Muslims and particularly women.

The Catholic church in Azerbaijan has only a single parish with a church and a chapel that is served by six priests. This small community also includes five Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity and two Salesian nuns who are under the direction of the apostolic prefect, Mons. Vladimir Fekete, a Salesian from Slovenia.

On 29 May 2016, the future first Azerbaijani priest was ordained to the diaconate in Saint Petersburg: this is very good news for the church in Azerbaijan. These can probably be considered the first buds of this discreet, but truly missionary presence.

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